As we explored here several months ago, Ian Kennedy has gone from a starter on an albatross contract to a highly intriguing reliever this season, making him a fairly logical trade candidate for the 39-65 Royals. Kansas City is indeed getting interest in not only Kennedy but also left-hander Danny Duffy, as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports (subscription required). Both players are on sizable contracts, however, and Rosenthal adds that Kansas City is “not inclined” to make a deal if it means paying down either veteran’s deal to a more palatable rate. The Royals “value [Kennedy and Duffy] as place-holders until their younger pitchers develop,” per the report.
With regard to Duffy, that’s a rather logical stance to take. He’s a homegrown player who was extended to much fanfare in Kansas City, and while the $15-16MM he’s being paid on an annual basis outstrips his recent production, it’s not an egregious overpay. Signed through the 2021 season, Duffy has at least been a serviceable arm. He owns a 4.32 ERA in 89 1/3 innings and is averaging 8.0 K/9 against 3.2 BB/9 while still carrying the upside of pitching at a higher level.
Trading Duffy, even with an acquiring team taking on all of his money (which is highly unlikely) would be selling low. The lefty was the Royals’ best starter in 2016-17, tossing a combined 326 innings of 3.54 ERA ball with 8.8 K/9, 2.3 BB/9 and 1.1 HR/9. It’s possible that with a strong finish to the 2019 season and/or a strong first half in 2020, Duffy’s value could increase. Paying down his contract and seeing his value increase in the future would be a bitter pill to swallow — particularly because the present-day return in a theoretical trade would be relatively modest.
As pertains to Kennedy, though, it’s a somewhat befuddling mindset. He’s four years older than Duffy, only signed through the end of the 2020 season (at annual rates of $16.5MM) and is pitching more effectively than he has at any point in his Royals tenure. Kennedy is currently sporting a 3.40 ERA, but he’s also recorded a 2.16 FIP and a 3.17 SIERA mark. The right-hander is averaging 11.1 K/9 against 2.1 BB/9 with a career-high 45.5 percent ground-ball rate. Suddenly, in a relief role, Kennedy is missing bats, limiting walks and home runs, and generating grounders all at career-best rates. His value could well be at its apex, and a once-untradeable pitcher now looks like a player who could be moved and return an intriguing prospect or two if the Royals pay him down to market value (or even lower).
Were Kennedy a free agent this offseason, it’s easy to see him commanding a solid salary on a one-year deal or perhaps even a two-year pact. He’s owed $22.4MM from this writing through the end of the 2020 season, and while that’s more than he’d earn in free agency, it’s not outlandish to think he could earn himself $6-7MM annually on the open market. Paying him down to that rate, or even a bit further, could net some minor leaguers to further the club’s rebuild while also saving enough cash to sign a different “placeholder” (or two) in free agency.
If the Royals are eyeing contention in 2020, hats off to them for making an effort in a weak division at a time when so many other clubs are insistent on lengthy rebuilds that inherently come with diminishing returns. (The more clubs that tank, the less effective the benefits of tanking become.) But even if that’s the case, it’s hard to see how retaining Kennedy at $16.5MM for next season meshes with that plan. If the alternative is adding a quasi-interesting prospect or two and saving some money that could be reinvested in the 2020 roster, the Royals should be willing to sell Kennedy at peak value.